One of the times my New York hosts chuckled at me, and there were several, was when they asked what I'd be doing one day, and I said, "Checking out Brooklyn."
It isn't that a day in Brooklyn is poorly spent. Quite the opposite. Among other qualities, it may be the most ethnically diverse place in America, with 38 percent of the population foreign-born. No, their chuckling was based on my ignorance. I thought of Brooklyn as a "part of town," which is technically true. But Brooklyn has almost 2.5 million residents. Were it an independent city, it would be the fourth most populous we have. So, imagine someone telling you they were going to spend a day "checking out," say, Houston.
My hosts told me to focus: Pick two places you want to see and spend half a day in each. They suggested the Botanic Garden, and I thought two things: 1) There's a botanic garden in Brooklyn? And 2) Why would I spend precious New York City time in a garden?
They insisted, so I relented. But even as I plopped down my $8 and walked in from Flatbush Avenue, I was thinking I'd knock this out in a few minutes, then go over to Park Slope and get a cup of coffee or wander over to Williamsburg and take a friend's suggestion to "check out the tattooed hipsters."
I don't remember exactly when I forgot about Park Slope, but it was early. Perhaps it was right inside the entrance, when I walked under a massive wisteria arbor and saw a long and beautiful lawn surrounded by azaleas. For a moment, I thought that was the whole garden, and I would have been impressed. But at the far end of the lawn, I saw a patch of forest across a walkway. It turned out to be a native flora garden, the first of its kind in the country and a reminder that even while wandering past a meadow, pond, stream, and flower-filled pine forest, I was in the middle of a great American city in a 100-year-old garden.
I caught a glimpse of another great lawn down the hill and headed for it. On the way, I found a lilac collection, with 150 different species. Walking among the blooms was like showering in perfume. And speaking of such, the lawn turned out to be a rose garden, with 5,000 plants also in full bloom. That garden alone would be a major attraction in any city.
That's when I got curious and pulled out the map they'd given me at the entrance — and realized I was only a third of the way through! So much for the hipsters. I had gone from "knocking it out in an hour" to needing a plan so I could get it all done.
I started with looping past the Cherry Esplanade, since its 40 species already had bloomed, then down through the fairy-tale-sounding Bluebell Wood, where I just missed the spectacle of 45,000 Spanish bluebells blooming under the shade of beech and birch trees.
I looped around to the left and headed for the Japanese Garden but first was drawn in by the Fragrance Garden. It was designed in 1955 for the visually impaired, but for all of us it's a festival for the other senses: plants with scented leaves, plants for touching, fragrant flowers, and kitchen herbs. Just down the path, and aimed straight for your eyes, is the Shakespeare Garden, with 80 or more flowers mentioned in his writings.
After all this sensory input, the Japanese Garden was the perfect, peaceful antidote — a bit of serenity within the grand abundance. Low hills wrap around a pond, in which an orange gateway stands in stark solitude. The path leads over wooden bridges to a viewing platform, then up to a waterfall that's heard before it's seen and occupies yet another level of serenity. Just beyond is a Shinto shrine, as if high in the mountains.
In a placid daze now, I wandered through the Magnolia Plaza and the Lily Pool Terrace. I sipped coffee and watched birds in a patio at the Conservatory, then drifted into the building to get out of the sun. I discovered a bonsai collection and became lost in their miniature world.
One of these trees, perhaps three feet tall, was 115 years old. I stood in awe before it, considering how many generations of people must have worked on it. It had both the grandeur and exquisite detail of an old-growth fir and, despite its size, the stature to match its sublime surroundings.
From the staggering size of the city to the peace and quiet of a garden, I had indeed found something special in Brooklyn.